The Troll of Deep Ellum

Miles looked at the pile of boneless chicken wings on the tv tray, and sighed. He’d ordered 30, in 6 different sauce flavors, and had eaten 17 or 18 so far. The pile that was left was more than enough food for a normal person, and the pain in his gut told him it was going to be a slog to get through it all. Not to mention the few remaining fried pickles, a slice of carrot cake, and a slice of fudge cake, which he’d taken a few bites of before deciding the flavor didn’t go well with the garlic butter wings he’d begun with.

The remaining 2 cans of Cherry Bomm soda would help, of course. And, if he had to, he could get up and grab another 6-pack. Miles couldn’t remember if he’d already eaten the 5 teriyaki wings. If not, he’d definitely need more soda, the teriyaki sauce from this place was saltier than he liked, but he kept ordering it. Just like he’d keep eating the food, though he’d stopped enjoying it one full flavor ago. But the taste let him feel something, and stuffing food into his gob until he was in pain was one of the few ways he could claim control over his life.

It was just a matter of timing. Hauling his 550 lb. mass out of the powered recliner he spent most of every day in wasn’t something he undertook at a whim. Just getting more Cherry Bomm wasn’t a good enough reason to undergo the effort. But, other errands beyond arm’s reach were beginning to pile up. He needed to pee, for one thing. He also hadn’t grabbed the game controlled before sitting down the last time he’d been up and around, two hours ago when the food delivery had arrived. And he was beginning to get worse-than-usual heartburn, so some antacids might be in order as well.

Plus Edward, his cat, was going to want to be fed soon as well. Edward’s dry kibble feeder was on a timer, but the massive, fluffy red ragdoll got a single can of wet food every night, and that had to be done by hand. It was, honestly, a lot of work for Miles, given the food had to be put on the floor, and the old bowl picked up, and Edward insisted on being underfoot as soon as he realized it was gooshiefood time. But Edward was also one of the only creatures in the world whom Miles loved and who loved him in return, so he made the effort every night, without fail.

So, there really was enough to justify the effort to stand and stomp heavily about his tiny basement apartment getting things done. Miles shrugged internally, and pushed the thought aside for now. He was watching one of his favorite shows, the one about people who forged swords, and it would be done in 10-15 minutes anyway. He could pause it at any time of course, like everything he watched it was streaming and on-demand, but it was a good enough excuse to procrastinate the unpleasantness of having to bear his own weight.

A loud burp signaled he likely had enough room for another boneless wing, so Miles dutifully plucked a sticky, sauce-covered lump from the cardboard container they’d come in, and swirled it first in blue cheese dressing, then ranch. One reason he ordered from this restaurant so often was their boneless wings were really huge — two-to-three times the mass of a fast food nugget. So it was the work of more than a bite to chew up the fried breading and meat, even for someone with his vast experience eating. Normally, the second (and if needed) third bite came hot on the heels of swallowing the first one, but the heartburn grew worse as he swallowed. Miles decided to put down the remaining hunk of food–carefully balanced inside the big cup of blue cheese, so he’d know which one was partially eaten–and try to wash it down with a swig of over-caffeinated sickly sweet cherry-citrus soda.

As he held his sausagelike arm up to keep the can at his lips, a muscle spasm shot through it and made him tremor. His grip slipped, for just a second, and a splash of Cherry Bomm leaped onto his smooth double chin, dripping down to join a smear of fudge frosting and some atomic buffalo sauce on his t-shirt. Though a wave of revulsion shot through Miles as both the state of his hygiene, and the fact he was so weak he could pull an arm-muscle drinking soda, there was no sign of it on his face. His self-loathing was too common and familiar to be worth getting upset over.

The lights went out all over his apartment, and the television blinked to black silence.

Miles put down his soda, and closed his eyes. He was pretty sure he’d paid the electric bill — he’d had a nice run of art commissions from people who found AI-generated images couldn’t scratch their need to see customized anthropomorphic animal porn, a big part of his regular clientele — so while his credit cards were all still way to full, his bills should all be up-to-date. But if he’d forgotten, or if the bank had screwed him by suspending his payment for “unusual activity” again, it would likely mean going to a bill-paying service in person. Which was a horror that far outstripped mundane indignities like standing up.

Opening his eyes, he strained to look out one of the thin windows running along the very top of the wall in his main room, the only visual access his apartment had to the outside world. It was well past sundown, and raining, so it wasn’t that surprising no light was coming through, but it gave Miles some weak hope. If power was out on the whole block, that wasn’t something he was responsible for fixing. Given the rain, he could almost convince himself that, this time, he wasn’t the one who had fucked up.

His chair shuttered lightly, and a warm, comforting presence pressed up against his right calf. Miles fumbled for a moment to find his smartphone in the dark, then struggled to stab the tiny icons on its screen with his fat fingers, but in a moment he toggled its flashlight function, and spotlighted Edward in the cone of brightness.

Edward was a huge cat for the ragdoll breed, even ignoring how fluffy his red-and-cream fur was, or how chonky he was. Miles often suspected there were some Maine coons, or Norwegian forest cats, sitting proudly in the branches of Edward’s family tree. But the cat had adopted him when he’d first moved into the tiny back-ally apartment, and hadn’t come with any papers or family history. And, honestly, as a kitten Edward had been so cute Miles hadn’t asked any questions. Even taking the feline to the vet regularly, and paying to have a groomer make monthly house calls, were small prices to pay for Edward’s companionship.

Edward’s eyes were slit against the smartphone’s light, but he still hopped onto Miles’ belly and paced up it to gently head-butt Miles’ face. The pressure of the cat’s thirty-one pounds on his chest made Miles realize both his arm pain and heartburn had gone away, which was a welcome if surprising relief. Miles was in some kind of pain most of every day, and rarely did it retreat quickly or without a fight.

“Heya, Edward buddy. Wanting your can of gooshie?”

As always, Miles hated the sound of his own voice. He always thought it sounded like he was slowly being smothered in his own fat which, if he was being honest, was essentially true.

Edward sat back on Miles’ belly, and regarded him calmly, which was pretty typical behavior. Then the cat spoke, which very much was not.

“I do, my dearest, but to my annoyance, it’s going to have to wait.”

The voice was a pleasant and even tenor, with no specific accent Miles could identify, and exactly the way Miles had always thought Edward would sound if he spoke. Which, somehow, was even more surprising than the fact the cat just had spoken.”

“Ah,” began Miles, followed by “Um..” and an “Er…”

“Yes,” said Edward, calmly. “I can talk. Or, rather, you can hear. I’m not any different than I was this afternoon. You, on the other hand…”

Edward locked his gaze on Miles’ eyes.

“You’re dead, my sweet human.”

“Well, crap,” replied Miles. “So… not heartburn and a pulled arm muscle?”

“No, of course not.” Edward sounded just slightly annoyed. “You had a massive heart attack, which I am sure is a surprise to neither of us. Your heart was dead long before your brain, which is why you experienced it as much as you did. In fact, your brain isn’t truly ‘dead’ now, though it’s close enough for us to get started.”

“Uh-huh,” said Miles. “So, this is just the last, feeble sparks of dying neurons conjuring something comforting before I pass into oblivion?”

“No,” said Edward. “Well, not mostly. I mean, THAT is.”

Edward tilted his head toward the kitchenette, and Miles let his gaze follow despite the darkness his phone light wouldn’t normally penetrate. But, in the kitchen, it wasn’t dark. Instead, it was softly lit in pastel blues and yellows, and his mother was standing there. Not truly in his cramped kitchenette, but standing in front of the oven of his childhood home’s kitchen, smiling to herself as she pulled a tray of chocolate-and-caramel-chip cookies out of the oven. The smell hit Miles like a fist made of pure nostalgia, and the memory of how those cookies had tasted struck him immediately after.

Without giving any thought to how much work it would be, he began to stand…

Only to have Edward place one paw firmly on his chest and, somehow, keep him pinned in the recliner. Miles glanced at the cat, then back at his mother, but she was gone. Cruelly, the smell of fresh cookies lingered.

“Sorry,” said Edward gently. “I wish you could just go, maybe find your way to the Bright Lands, and I’d come with you. But you are called, she’ll be here soon, and I need to prepare you.”

–End Part One

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As with most of the short fiction I present here, the chance this will be continued is based directly on how many people suggest they’d like to read more of it. And, feedback from my supporters on Patreon, which make this entire blog possible, will unsurprisingly have the greatest weight.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on October 26, 2022, in Microsetting, Short Fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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